Six months ago, my husband and I and our children moved from Southwest Florida to Minnesota. It was the perfect time of year to leave Florida. We’d been in Ave Maria, right in the heart of the Everglades, for four years, and I can assure you that there is a reason for snowbirds. The winters in Florida are gorgeous—just perfect—but the summers in Florida, especially in the middle of a swamp, are just about unbearable. The heat, humidity, and bugs are enough to send anyone north. Of course, after our stretch of negative-thirty degree wind chills a last month, I find myself thinking about our sunshine state a little more these days.
Moving to Minnesota is a coming home for me, as this is where I grew up and went to school. For my husband, it is also something of a return because he spent six years up here for his bachelors and masters. And, this is where we met and married, so it holds a particular treasure for us. Nevertheless, although Minnesota has always been our home base, Florida—southwest Florida—now holds a special place in our hearts. It was my husband and my first home (we moved there a week after we got married), the place we started our family, and the place where we made our first family friends.
It’s also the place where we discovered and fell in love with the birds.
Just behind our townhome was a wetlands restoration project, and what we, and our neighbors, agreed was the best view in town. You could bird watch from your bed. For the ignorant like me, Southwest Florida is the perfect place to begin learning about birds. It’s the primary education in bird watching and identification. The birds in our backyard were wading birds—in other words, big birds. Great blue herons, little blue herons, tricolor herons, great egrets, snowy egrets, glossy and white ibis, sandhill cranes, wood storks, the occasional roseate spoonbill, and our personal favorite, the green heron. Besides the green heron, secret and solitary as he is, all the other birds are easy to distinguish, and see, for that matter. Their habitat is wide shallow water and grasses, so they don’t get hidden in forests of leafy deciduous trees like up north.
I miss our big Florida birds. I saw a great blue heron fly overhead once during the summer, and we saw sandhill cranes in the fields on our way to Mass one Sunday last fall. But, I no longer get to peer out my window in the morning and be greeted by our regular great blue, or get really excited when the black-crowned night heron sneaks a rare visit. Nevertheless, these birds sent me off to Minnesota with a great gift: a delight and a yearning. A delight in their beauty and a yearning to know them and love them. A yearning to know and love the glorious and grand world that we live in. And, a yearning to contemplate and meet Him who created it—through them.
While I will say that I find it harder to bird watch up here than it was in Florida, I am enjoying discovering a new personality of birds. Slowly but surely, these northern birds, too, are becoming my friends. They’re also forcing me to start to learn their voices and not only their appearance. And I find a lot of comfort in hearing their songs and throaty chatter, even if I can’t see where they are. Just the other day, my son and I were playing in the snow after the big snowstorm, and I heard the sweet song of the chickadee. You’d have thought it was spring.
Why do I tell you all of this? Well, as I myself have long experienced, there is disconnect in our modern era between man and the natural world. Speeding by in our cars, surrounded by concrete walls and paved roads, we can easily miss the glory of the world around us. Ever since taking Christopher Thompson’s “Stewardship and Sustainability” course during my masters program, I have recognized my ignorance of the natural world and wanted to remedy it. However, to love the natural world, you have to know the natural world, and to know it, you have to stop and pay attention to it. How do you do that? Well, for me, it took having a child. For some reason, I could never slow down long enough to get to know the created order until our first son was born. As he grew, I wanted him to know the names of the things in the natural world that surrounded him and to delight, as God does, in the inherent goodness of creation. I had noticed the birds on our walks (they’re pretty hard to miss), so I began to look up their names and point them out. As I began to name them, something rather extraordinary happened. I began to delight in them. And as I delighted in them, I wanted to know more and more.
I read a quote from St. Basil the Great that I have been pondering a lot recently. He says,
I want creation to penetrate you with so much admiration that wherever you go, the least plant may bring you the clear remembrance of the Creator. A single plant, a blade of grass, or one speck of dust is sufficient to occupy all of your intelligence in beholding the art with which it has been made.
While so many of us pass it over, the world we live in is utterly luminous. It is pregnant with meaning and fertile mysteries—“charged with the grandeur of God,” as Gerard Manley Hopkins tells us. The universe is intelligible—ordered and good—and through it God communicates his very self to us. His Word echoes in the chants of creation.
And yet, how many of us stand before the natural world and, with God, behold it as very good? Far too few, it seems. We need to find a way to slit the umbrella that keeps us from seeing creation as good and not merely convenient; that keep us from seeing it for what it truly is: a refraction of the Logos himself.
Perhaps we can begin with a name. That’s how it started for me. To love someone or something, you have to know it. Nature writer Paul Gruchow says that “names are passwords to our hearts, and it is there, in the end, that we will find room for a whole world.” Let’s learn the name of something this week. Maybe a bird, a tree, a flower, a star. And then another one next week. And, before we know it, creation will begin to penetrate us with admiration, will humble us by its grandeur; it will leave us dripping with the desire to know it and love it—to contemplate it.
Yes, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” We, in silence and still, must behold, must listen, and must drink of the gift of goodness God shares with us in creation, allowing it to draw us to Him from whom all good things come.
—Kelsey Wanless received her Masters in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. She and her family now reside in Minnesota.